Pike fervently wished he had not heard the sounds. But he had, even above the jolting and creaking of the wagon, and they told him that something unpleasant was happening just ahead. He wanted to turn and drive off, ignoring them, but he couldn’t, not without finding out what was happening. He moved on slowly and stopped the wagon with the muzzle of the mule sticking into the glade just off the trail. The scene was as bad as he had feared.
An old squaw was on the ground, and a man was just finishing his ghastly business on her. An old warrior was hanging by his wrists, feet barely touching the ground, from a cottonwood a few yards from where his wife—Pike assumed the unfortunate woman was his wife—was being abused. He was bloody and appeared to be barely alive.
Another burst of hooting and reprehensible laughter—the foul sounds that had warned Pike of evil doings but had drawn him—burst forth from the man, who was buttoning his trousers as another began loosening his in preparation for replacing him. Two others watched as the new man knelt between the old squaw’s legs.
Pike cursed silently but fervently and efficiently as he slid off the wagon seat and stalked toward the group, pulling a pistol as he did. He did not hesitate. He simply blew out the fornicator’s brains with a quick shot to the head, then blasted the just-finished rapist with a shot to the heart.
The other two men gasped and went for their holstered six-shooters, but they had no chance against Pike and soon lay dead on the grass.
Pike slipped his pistol away, swept up a blanket near the fire, and knelt to gently cover the woman. “They won’t bother you no more,” he said, feeling stupid for offering the useless platitude but having no other words that would suffice.
He rose, hurried to the tree, and cut the ropes holding the old warrior, who was in poor shape but not as bad as Pike had thought he was. Still, he had to hold onto the man to keep him from falling. He let the warrior rest for a few moments, then helped him over and eased him down next to his wife.
The Indians clutched each other, crying in their fear and shame.
Pike stood uneasily. He still had no words for these two unfortunate folks. Finally, he asked, “You have people nearby who can look after you?”
The old man looked up and stared at him a few moments. The tears had stopped, but the shame at having been unable to protect himself and his woman—and the knowledge that getting revenge for being wronged would have been beyond him even had this stranger not come along—remained. Then a blankness dropped over his eyes and he nodded. “Two, three miles.” He jerked his head toward the southeast.
“You gonna be able to get to them?”
The warrior nodded once and jerked his head in the direction of the two Indian ponies nearby, one with a travois sparsely laden with supplies.
“You with Many Snows’ band?”
“Have small village near his.”
Pike nodded. He wandered over and looked at the two animals. They were serviceable, but barely. He got one of the dead men’s horses and carefully loaded the packages from the travois on that horse, then returned to the old couple. He knelt and easily but gently swept the woman up. Fear raced across her face. Pike gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I won’t harm you, Grandmother,” he said quietly, using the term of respect he had learned from Little Raven.
She relaxed a little under his friendly look and his use of the honorific.
Pike carried her to the travois and laid her tenderly on it. He began to lay a blanket across her but stopped when he felt the man’s hand on his shoulder.
“I do,” the warrior said. He looked a bit stronger now than he had when Pike cut him down from the tree a few minutes ago.
Pike nodded and rose. He strode across the glade and pulled his wagon toward the miscreants’ fire. Within minutes, he had unceremoniously thrown the four bodies into the bed of his small-box farm wagon. Then he tied their remaining horses next to his at the back of the wagon. He climbed onto the conveyance’s hard wooden seat and glanced at the warrior, who stood watching him, ready to mount his pony. Pike waved.
“What’s your name?” the old Ute called.
“Thank you, Brodie Pike. I am Fallen Timber.”
Even at this distance, Pike thought he could see both pride and irony on the old man’s face. He tipped his hat and rode off, paying no attention to the gruesome cargo bouncing in the wagon bed behind him.
Just after noon, Pike rode into Skeeter Creek and pulled his mule to s stop in front of the town marshal’s office. The man who came out wearing the star was not the same one Pike had met on his previous visits to the town. He briefly wondered what had happened to the other but realized he didn’t care.
“You responsible for all this?” the lawman asked as he looked into the wagon bed. He pulled up the head of one of the men by the hair. “Hey, that’s Luke Stumpert.” He grabbed another. “And Rafe Biggins, Barny Weathers, and Ox Utley,” he added after checking the others.
“Friends of yours?” Pike asked dryly.
“I knew ‘em, that’s a fact. But you didn’t answer my question. You responsible for these men bein’ dead?”
“What in hell ever possessed you to kill four men?” He didn’t seem angry as much as full of curiosity about what had brought on the bloodbath.
“Caught ‘em abusin’ an old couple back down the trail a little way. Didn’t seem like a good thing for them to be doin’.”
“Old couple? Ain’t no old couple livin’ down the trail that way that I know of.”
“Couple Indians. Utes. Ancient warrior and his squaw.”
“And you killed four white men in cold blood for abusin’ a couple broken-down Indians?” The marshal was incredulous.
“Cold blood, my ass,” Pike snapped. “Indians or not, they were old, feeble, and defenseless. Didn’t seem too mannerly to me for four strong, healthy men to hang an old man from a tree and torture him while at the same time … hell, you can’t even call what they were doin’ to that old woman fornicatin’. It was god-awful and sickening. Shameful.” The rage he had felt when he had first seen the site swelled back up in him, and he fought to force it down.
“Ain’t many folks ‘round here likely to think the same.”
“Then they’re as bad as these four. And it don’t matter none to me what they might think.”
The lawman stood staring up at Pike for a bit, still baffled by his actions. Then he shook his head. “Reckon it was Dead Wood and his ol’ squaw.”
“I believe his name is Fallen Timber.”
“Right. Folks here nicknamed him ‘Dead Wood.’ Kind of a play on his name.”
“A playful lot they must be.” He looked around. “Be obliged if you’d check to see if these four devils were wanted.”
“You a bounty hunter?”
“I have been. At times.”
“Haven’t been at it in a spell, but if there’s a bounty on ‘em, I figure the cash is mine.”
“Mercenary bastard, ain’t you?”
“Nope. Just practical.” He chucked a thumb at the bodies. “I’ll drop these off at the undertaker’s if you got one. Or a doc’s if you’d rather. If you got neither, I’ll dump ‘em anywhere.”
“Take ‘em down the street here to the livery stable. Just leave ‘em. I’ll have someone take ‘em over to Abercrombie’s funeral home one at a time so he’s not overwhelmed.”
Pike nodded. “I’ll be in town tonight. Stayin’ at the Creek Inn.” He had considered another night at Evangeline’s, but his closeness to Little Raven these days made that seem wrong, and his anger at these four villains had not left him in a lighthearted mood. “I’ll be pullin’ out tomorrow after I get what supplies I come after. I expect to have payment in hand on these men before I leave.”
He had known by the look on the lawman’s face when he said he knew them that the dead men were, indeed, outlaws.
“Don’t know if I’ll have time to …” The marshal clamped his mouth shut, knowing his mouth had moved a lot faster than his brain. He had figured on stalling long enough for Pike to leave town so he could collect the bounty himself, but it was too late now. He figured he could drum up a fair amount of cash on the horses, the tack, and whatever else the men had on them. “Hey, wait a minute, mister. There’s four men here and only three horses, figurin’ one of the four tied to your wagon is yours. Where’s the other one?”
“Probably in a Ute village by now. Or it will be soon.”
“Damn redskin. Always knew he was a horse thief.”
“That old man ain’t a horse thief. He needed another horse, and these fellas didn’t need theirs no longer, so I gave one to him. If you want someone to point a finger at, you’ll have to point it at me—but if you do, you just might lose that finger. I don’t much cotton to havin’ fingers pointed at me, even by some punk wearin’ a tin star.”
He hauled the wagon away from the hitching rail and drove slowly down the street.